Baltimore voters will get to decide whether the city should take back full control of the Baltimore Police Department from the state for the first time since 1860.
The question will appear on city ballots in either 2022 or 2024 after legislation setting up the referendum on the status of the Baltimore Police Department sailed through the Maryland General Assembly.
State senators on Wednesday unanimously approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Cory McCray and Del. Melissa Wells, both Baltimore Democrats, sending it to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. The House of Delegates passed the legislation Friday on a vote of 115-21, a veto-proof majority.
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, who championed the issue during his time on the Baltimore City Council, drafted the legislation and threw the support of his administration behind it.
Scott said Wednesday that the change would allow the city to improve policing and fulfill requirements of its consent decree.
Baltimore entered into the decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017 after an investigation found the police department routinely violated residents’ civil rights, especially in poor and predominantly minority neighborhoods. Under the terms of the agreement, the department must implement reforms and report regularly to a federal judge and an independent monitoring team.
“Answering national calls for justice starts at home by fostering an environment of policing that is transparent and accountable,” Scott said. “Today, I am proud to say that Baltimore is moving in the right direction.”
Hogan, a Republican, hasn’t weighed in on the issue of local control and a spokesman hasn’t responded to questions about whether he supports holding the referendum. The bill’s broad support in both chambers of the General Assembly would give lawmakers enough votes to override any potential veto.
Baltimore is the only Maryland jurisdiction in which the police department or sheriff’s office is officially a state agency. State lawmakers seized control of the Baltimore Police Department in 1860 to wrest the agency from the virulently anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, which dominated city politics at the time and stacked the police department with loyal followers.
Bloody political street fighting in 1850s Baltimore marred city elections. There were pitched gunbattles involving the Know-Nothings and the proslavery Democrats, sometimes punctuated by cannon fire, according to Matthew Crenson, an emeritus professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. Fights during the 1856 election left roughly 30 dead.
Baltimore taxpayers have remained responsible for funding the department and the City Council controls its budget. But until 1976, the governor picked the city’s police commissioner, who has wide independent authority to run the department.
Maryland Policy & Politics
The state returned the authority to hire and fire the commissioner to Baltimore’s mayor in 1976 after intense lobbying by Black leaders in the city, who argued the department was in urgent need of reform and unresponsive to community demands.
But the department’s official status as a state agency remained, and the lack of full control limits the City Council’s ability to directly regulate the agency.
Internal police department overhauls that in other jurisdictions are handled with county council actions require approval from the General Assembly, including tweaks to how officers are selected for promotions. Giving the city control over such matters was part of legislation that lawmakers also sent Wednesday to the governor.
A new advisory board will help craft the language of the proposed amendment to the city charter.
How the charter is amended will have significant implications for how the police department is governed in the future. The charter currently leaves decisions about how to run the department almost entirely to the commissioner, broadly prohibiting the mayor or City Council from directly regulating the agency beyond hiring or firing the department’s leader.
Local leaders will decide whether to put the issue on the ballot in 2022 or 2024. If approved, the change would take effect at the beginning of the following year. The next statewide elections in Maryland will be in 2022, while 2024 is the year of the next elections for mayor and City Council.
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.
This article has been corrected to show that Matthew Crenson is an emeritus professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. An earlier version said he was a history professor. The Sun regrets the error.